0100. I’m not sure what was more frustrating: the fact that the indigo light on my sports watch was growing weaker or the fact that I had been trying to fall asleep for almost three hours with no success. My stomach was churning with a serious case of indigestion and a hint of bloating from the monstrous Thanksgiving feast I had just eaten. Even in one of the most poverty stricken countries on earth, thousands of miles away from my mom’s kitchen, I nor any of the 140 soldiers of Attack Company showed any mercy on our digestive tracts this Thanksgiving. I was paying for it now though.
My digital watch keeps time in two separate time zones. I keep one at my current location (be it Afghanistan, Ft. Lewis, etc) and the second one on U.S. Eastern Standard Time. Whenever I’m homesick or bored, I check out the time on the East Coast and try to figure out what my parents and family friends are doing right about now. The Army usually has me doing the most random things at the most random hours of the day, so I’m able to maintain some variety in this little game I play with myself.
0200. I check the time on the East Coast. 1630. Oh nice…late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day. By this time, I would’ve just been getting bored of pestering my mom and sister for attention as they slave away in the kitchen. I’d be making my way to the television to flip channels between movie marathons and football games, enjoying the smells of the meal to come. “Ah, that’s a good one to sleep on.” I closed my eyes and finally started to relax a little bit.
“Sir!” Specialist Frances stormed into my tent, “Hey, Sir…wake up!” I looked at my watch. 0234. I am not exactly sure what I did or said next, but deep down, I definitely knew what was coming.
“What’s up man?” I squeaked out from the pocket of warmth underneath my fleece blanket.
“Hey you’re on QRF right?” I looked at my watch again…0234 still. My platoon had been on QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for the past week or so…we weren’t coming off till 0600. Whatever this was, the ball was in our court.
“Yeah…that’s us. What’s up?”
“First platoon just hit an—“ He didn’t need to finish, I jumped out of my cot with the energy of an Olympic sprinter and I switched on the tent’s fluorescent light.
“Everybody up! REDCON1! Let’s go!” I yelled throughout the tent. Like magic, lights flipped on, my NCOs began screaming orders up and down the tent, getting their men ready for whatever chaos was to come. I swept to SFC Nix’s cot.
“Hey, 1st Platoon just hit an IED. I’m going to go to the Battalion TOC to figure this out.”
“Roger, we’re on it, Sir,” he responded. I didn’t have to say anything else. I knew my Platoon Sergeant would take care of the rest.
I jumped back to my own cot and scuffled around as I tried to fish for my uniform items through the sea of paperwork and laundry I had set aside on my desk. I threw together some concoction of a combat uniform with whatever I could find. “Pants? Check. Socks? Check. Underwear…hmm, guess not.” I needed to hurry up, “Eye-pro? Check. Thermal fleece….oh hell yes. Okay, body armor, helmet, gloves, boots, weapon, ammunition, NVGs, water, map, camera, tourniquet, Afghan money, first aid kit, and radio…wait for it…okay good, deuces!” I was set. I stormed out of the tent into the 20 degree cold and headed towards the Battalion Operations center, leaving the welfare and preparation of the soldiers in my PSG’s hands. It was 0236.
“Hey Raj,” called out the night Battle Captain, Captain Beiber, “I’m sure you’re already tracking, your first platoon hit an IED, we need you to get the wrecker and EOD down there as soon as possible. Here’s the grid.” He pointed to a digital map outlining where the units were. It was only 8 kilometers away…they were almost home.
“Aright, any casualties?”
“One dude messed up his back and—
“But everyone’s alive?” I interrupted. After all, it’s the only thing that matters.
“Yeah, everyone’s fine. They’re calling in a bird just to be safe for one of their guys. Bird goes wheels up in 2 mikes.”
“Nice, cash money.” It was the best news I’d heard all night. “Hey when you can, get the wrecker and EOD dudes on the net, tell ‘em to drop down to my Platoon Freq. We leave in five mikes.”
“Got your back, man. Be safe.”
0250. It was hard to believe that, just 15 minutes ago, I was lying comfortably in my cot trying to fall asleep. Now, my platoon was parked at the gate, ready to roll out. We were just waiting on getting the wrecker and EOD elements up on the net. Of course, neither of them had prepared their communications systems nor conducted any sort of checks before leaving. I guess they just assumed they could give themselves the night off.
Still, I kept my cool. If there’s one thing I pride about my leadership in combat, it’s that I am able to keep a certain calmness in my voice even when stress and emotions are running high. My gunner, SGT Coolie, actually thinks I’m too calm. “There’ll be some serious shit going down, and you’ll be talking to us like you’re at a tea party!” he once joked with me. None the less, there have been four distinct moments over the past few months when I’ve lit up the radio with a few choice words to get things moving…and this was shaping up to be number five…
“Hey wrecker, it’s Attack 46. What’s your location…we need to leave like 5 minutes ago.”
“Hey…” came a slothful voice over the net, “It’s wrecker, yeah hang on. Gimmie a freakin sec. I’m uhh…I’m on…my way.”
I could tolerate the disrespectful nature of his transmission; I really don’t need soldiers to talk to me like a prince in order to feel like their leader. I could have even tolerated his lethargic state, provided that he was actively trying to get his act together. But if any soldier wants to feel the wrath of this Butter Bar LT, the one thing they have to do is deliberately give less than 100% effort when our brothers are idling in dire straits. I picked up my FOB hand held radio to talk to the soldier on a different net to keep our interaction private.
“…Yeah, got it…it’s 3am. It’s Thanksgiving. You’re tired…I DON”T FUCKING CARE. We have Americans outside the wire in harm’s way, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you didn’t get your full night’s rest after a whole day of eating your fucking turkey. Get your head outta your ass and move the fuck out!”
“Roger, Sir!” The driver’s voice transformed from slothful to spiteful. He wasn’t one of my guys. He didn’t know who I was. Whatever. I’m not here to win a popularity contest. He got the hint, and at least he was awake now and ready to do his job.
“Aright, let’s start pushing.”
0301. We stormed out of the FOB as fast as the recovery assets would allow. Dirt and sand covered my face as I stood out of my Stryker’s hatch. It’s hard enough navigating with night vision, but the dense dust clouds that our vehicles kick up in the desert make it almost impossible. At this point in the tour, it doesn’t really matter. We’ve figured it out…we just gotta keep rolling.
In the fragile moment of the operation where everything seems to be going as planned, I checked the time on the East Coast. 1740. I smiled. By this time in the day, I would be starving for dinner. I usually either skip lunch or eat something light so I can have liberty to stuff myself at the main event. I’d set the table, fill glasses with water. My father would put on some classical Indian music; the same music that would annoy me to no end as a child now seems to bring charm to our family table. My sister would be putting the finishing touches on her trifle…or is it a truffle? It’s a big bowl with layers of fruit, cake, and yogurt that I absolutely love. I may not know what it’s called, but I’m an absolute expert on its production. “No Ranj, your strawberries are not arrayed in the correct way. See, watch me. This is how you do it. No Ranj, your blueberries…geez they’re just a mess. They’re all over the place. You need to array them like this. And your yogurt…it’s too…goopie. Yes, goopie. You need to spread it like this, no…steady….ugh!” About this time, my sister figures out that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about and kicks me out of her operation. “Well…not going to lie,” I say as I leave, “I’ve seen better truffles…or trifles…whatever…but yours isn’t too bad…but don’t get lazy.”
As we approached the IED blast site, we joined the cordon, securing the West and North. The EOD and wrecker team pulled closer to the downed vehicle. I can see it from my hatch through my night vision. There are soldiers scattered around, doing whatever they can for those shaken up in the blast. They find consolation in manual labor of gathering gear, securing weapons, and accounting for one another…taking care of one another.
Thirty minutes roll by. It feels like an eternity. There’s not much I can do right now. The site is being cleared, the platoon is taking care of itself, and we make sure they have some room to breathe. It’s early in the morning. The sun was about to rise, and it promised to be a beauty. Cirrus clouds stroked the high altitudes over a crisp blue sky. The warmth of light thawed my nose, and I could see almost everything around me. I didn’t need to look at my watch. I knew what would be going on back home.
My family would be sitting down for dinner. We’d pour a few glasses of wine and start cutting up the main course. But as all families do on Thanksgiving, we go around and say what we’re thankful for. We may say friends, family, success, our health, our food. Perched atop my Stryker, I close my eyes for just a moment. I go back to my home on Thanksgiving Day. So Rajiv, what are you thankful for? I’m not sure what I said last year, but today…I’m just thankful everyone is okay. I’m just thankful we all get to see this sunrise. I’m thankful we all get to see tomorrow…
So, who’s next? What are you thankful for? Whatever it is, make it quick…I want to get to the trifle.